Volcano High

2001 / 120m - South Korea
Action, Fantasy
Volcano High poster

The turn of the millennium was a crazy time for Asian cinema. Both Japan and South Korea were quickly building a solid reputation for themselves, almost every film that made it across their borders was a special event of its own. Even though they each had very distinct and unique styles, there was a core group of Western fans who gobbled up whatever those two countries produced. Tae-gyun Kim's Volcano High [Hwasango] was one of the earliest hits, a film that tentatively tried to combine both worlds. I honestly didn't have very high hopes it would hold up but found myself pleasantly surprised at the sheer glee and energy this film still holds.

screencap of Volcano High [Hwasango]

The oddest thing about Volcano High is that it tackles a uniquely Japanese niche: the high school brawler. And it did so before most high-profile Japanese films (think Blue Spring, High & Low, Cromartie High and Crows Zero) could establish themselves. It's not as grand or ambitious in scope, but all the core ingredients are there, and if you're looking for a film where exuberantly styled high school kids are fighting it out to seize control over their school, then you won't be disappointed.

The biggest difference from its Japanese counterparts is that the teachers actually play a significant role in the story/setting. Usually, they're completely out of the picture, but here the students are battling a faction of newly hired teachers to keep control over the school. That and the fact that the styling, though very explicit and mangaesque, is more in line with what you'd expect from South Korean cinema. It's a bit tricky to explain, but people familiar with both industries will have a feel for the way each country goes about being showy, and in that regard, Volcano High is a full-blown South Korean film.

Kim is a student who never managed to find the right school. He is a martial arts expert, but he has no control over his powers, and whenever he lets loose, his school kicks him to the curb. That is until he learns about Volcano High, a very particular school unbeknownst to the general public, but a safe haven for people with exceptional martial arts skills. Kim feels right at home, but a supposedly hidden manuscript once again turns Kim's life into a hellhole. The newly assigned teachers aren't pushovers and the students will have to fight their hardest if they want to keep control over the school.

screencap of Volcano High [Hwasango]

High school brawlers like this one are really all about image and looks, it's a good thing then that Kim put quite a bit of thought and effort into the styling. Volcano High is a rather colorless affair, sporting a very muted and desaturated palette with only the occasional hint of color popping through, but it fits the setting perfectly. The camera work is very showy and explicit, all the way from the opening to the finale, while the editing is sharp and pointed. The costumes and character stying too deserve a proper mention. It's really everything you need from a film like this.

I tend to reserve my whining about dubs for animation films, but Volcano High was released with a special MTV-commissioned US dub, featuring a bunch of favorite rappers of that era. It is absolutely horrendous. I know that martial arts films with crappy US dubs hold some kind of magical appeal to some, but unless you feel you are part of that very specific niche, I'd suggest just going for the original Korean dub instead. The soundtrack itself isn't all that special. It's pretty noisy and generic, just background filler for the action scenes, but it does the job.

The performances are solid, but clearly not the most important aspect of the film. It's never that easy to get these kinds of heightened, cartoonesque characters right, but the cast really makes an effort, and their full commitment paid off. The bad guys as well as the lead left solid impressions. These aren't the kind of performances that would win them any awards of course, and the styling of their characters really is half the work, but as someone who has seen this type of thing go sideways more than once, I'm pleased the cast didn't let the film down.

screencap of Volcano High [Hwasango]

For a simple film like Volcano High, two hours is quite a lot of runtime to fill up. The plot is pretty generic, the drama is cookie-cutter material and nobody in their right mind would doubt the outcome of this film. Luckily, the visual flair and utter ridiculousness of the action scenes keep the pacing high and the film flies by. There is a small but noticeable dip in the middle, which is quite normal (the narrative setup for the finale just isn't all that interesting, but it has to happen), other than that Volcano High delivers two hours of unfiltered entertainment.

No highbrow entertainment here, Volcano High offers kitsch, over-the-top fun from start to finish. And it does so with great conviction. The styling is zany and explicit, while the story is little more than an excuse for some great action scenes. And that's exactly what a film like this should be about. I'm pretty amazed the film held up so well, not in the least because better franchises have followed in its footsteps since then, but there's a strong, core dedication to entertainment that's hard to come by. I wish more South Korean films would care to follow this template, but alas. Well recommended if you like a good high school brawler.